Firsthand Accounts: How to Prepare Your Community for a Wildfire Evacuation
Authors: Allison Jolley
This Does Not Belong To You.
As you stand there
In the pale gray air
Frozen to these four walls
Feet turned to stone
What is worth saving?
Can you will your hands
To grab the memories
You carry only in your heart
Can you pack your boxes full
With the laughter that rings in your ears
The clouds taunt you
There is no time left
Three red flags declare your fate
The defiance of your feet
The moan caught in your throat
Your hands still empty
-Salyna Gracie, executive director of the Confluence Gallery and Art Center (Twisp, Washington); written in response to the Carlton Complex evacuations.
Trust Me. Make a List.
by Dawn Engler, FireWise of Southwest Colorado ambassador
Dawn lived in Bastrop County (Texas) during the 2011 Bastrop County wildfires. She evacuated her home twice in one summer. The following are excerpts from an essay she originally wrote for MUSED magazine (42.32MB, PDF, pages 24–27).
Inside the hall-closet door hung a list of things to grab, listed in order of importance. We realized after the first fire that we thought about our son’s seizure medications way too late in the process. This time, those were written at the top of this list. Then, there was a knock on the door. Our neighbor had just received the Reverse 911 call. We were to evacuate […]
There are still bags packed in the closest by the front door to this day. Fear-based? Maybe. But I want clean underwear if this happens again. The drought in Texas is far from over. Fire is a constant probability. The fires in Bastrop Country were 100 percent contained six weeks after they started. The fire was ruled accidental, started by a dead branch falling, hitting a power box, and sparking. Over 1,500 homes were lost in one area alone. Miraculously, only two human lives were lost. Eight homes were destroyed in the neighborhood next to us and many, many more from the other fires. The acreage lost is incomprehensible. Looking at houses completely burned down to the fireplace chimneys was eerie. Sometimes all that was left was a shell of an oven range or a washer and dryer. Sometimes an entire area would have no damage at all.
I really took to heart what is important in all of this. And accounting for everything that you own. You can’t take it all with you, so deal with it. If it’s a loss, at least have your paperwork and photos so that you can get the insurance money to replace it. Have a bag packed at the door or near it, with a weekend’s worth of clothes. And I cannot stress the importance of a list enough. I was shocked at how stupid my anal, organized self was when the “get out” call actually happened. The list is super easy. Write down a list of everything you can’t live without. Now, if you could have everything on the list but one thing, what would you drop? This goes at the bottom of your list. Do it over and over. If you could have everything on the list but one more thing, what would you drop? List that item next from the bottom. Work your way up until everything is prioritized. Check your list, make any adjustments, and hang it by the front door. If you have to leave your home, follow the list until the officers say go. Trust me; none of what gets left behind is really that important, if you did the list.
Prepare for Cash Shortages, Power Outages, Down Phone Lines and More.
In 2015, the town of Diablo, Washington, a Seattle City Light company town, was evacuated due to a wildfire. Evacuees were sent east to the town of Winthrop, which in fact was under its own evacuation notice because of the Twisp River Fire. Consequently, evacuees were then sent to Wenatchee, Washington, 172 miles away! Ryan Anderson, executive director for the Washington Resource Conservation and Development Council (who oversees WAFAC), heard about the conflicting evacuation notices and was able to call Seattle City Light’s fire brigade chief to give him a heads up. (Seattle City Light is a member of WAFAC.) This phone call and the ability of WAFAC participants to look out for one another during an incident was a highlighted in the after-action review.
Starting the year before that fire, we have been capturing lessons learned from those who have experienced catastrophic wildfires, to help others plan and mitigate similar scenarios. Here are a few evacuation observations and associated recommendations that have been shared over the years.
- Fire is a moving disaster, which means that an evacuation can last longer during a wildfire than during other disasters. Have evacuation plans that can be adjusted throughout the fire, and after the fire if post-fire flooding/mudslide evacuations may also occur.
- People fill up their gas tanks during an evacuation, which in Washington, has led to several instances of fuel stations running out of gas. Work with residents to be prepared to leave with little or no notice — preparation includes keeping gas tanks full. Encourage fueling stations to create and maintain business continuity plans, or at least identify which operations are critical to the community and the business itself. Ensure fueling stations have a connection to emergency management teams and can send requests to their suppliers in the early stages of an incident.
- If the power goes out during an evacuation, stores cannot run credit cards, process electronic government benefits, or take phone payments, which results in a high demand for cash. Education and outreach efforts should stress the importance of always having cash on hand. FAC practitioners should identify organizations that can provide resources or deploy funds to those in need.
- During (and following) an evacuation, people need the essentials.
- Identify an organization that can mobilize relief funds quickly, such as a Community Foundation that is known for having the appropriate knowledge, partners and connections. That initial organization needs to understand the IRS’ rules around charitable giving (certain types of giving can be subject to a 6-8 week waiting period). They also need to be able to distribute funds to agencies that can then respond to local needs (food, gas cards, shelter or something unexpected).
- Who can accept and distribute food and clothing donations?
- What other organizations meet the unique needs of your community?
- Develop a community check-in plan (and share it before the fire!) that encourages residents and evacuees to let others know that they are safe. During a large disaster, you can use the Red Cross website to find and contact others.
- If both power and phone lines are down, word-of-mouth and paper notices will become key communication strategies.
- Establish where paper evacuation notices will be posted and who can post them.
- Develop neighborhood communication systems and identify who will need additional, including medical, assistance. Map My Neighborhood is a great way to get started.
- Identify communication systems that are reliable during an emergency (like radios) and ensure that backup power systems are in place (such as generators).
- Ensure evacuation orders are translated, and that people who are fluent in multiple languages are available to help at evacuation shelters and speak on the radio.
- Faith communities are an important partner during evacuations. Churches can coordinate recreation vehicle/home lending for evacuees who need short-term housing. Chaplains are skilled at talking with community members and determining needs and impacts.
- In Washington, efforts have been made to use vacation rentals as housing for evacuees, but most owners were not open to evacuees with children and pets. Identify and post locations to relocate pets and livestock, and have other options for families with children.
- Employees should discuss evacuation contingency plans with their employers. Determine a communication plan with employees if you can’t call or email. Keep copies of phone numbers and contacts off-site. Other important questions to work through include:
- If you perform a critical function and are evacuated, who will fill in for you?
- Will you be compensated if you are not working and, if not, how will that impact your family?
- Youth-oriented businesses face particular evacuation challenges. They should have a plan for if/when parents are unable to pick up their children during an evacuation.
- Evacuees will contact and seek out known, local community resources (a local human service organization, food bank, donation center, etc.). However, national Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) teams will often be called to an incident to provide some of these services. It is helpful for local organizations to create a Community Organization Active in Disaster (COAD), learn about the VOAD process and the resources that they provide, and understand how to put the VOAD/COAD teams to work.
Start Before You Have To.
by Carolyn Berglund, WAFAC member
In August 2012, the devastating Taylor Bridge Fire ripped through the central-Washington town Cle Elum. My husband, John, and I had lived in this area for just a few years, and like many of our neighbors, we were transplants from the temperate Puget Sound. Terrified, we started to pack our travel trailer. We watched others racing into the fire perimeter with empty horse trailers — and out with loaded pickups.
We spent a sleepless night in our home, and the next day, law enforcement arrived and asked us to evacuate. We had no plan. We grabbed computers, chocolate, dog food and some extra clothes. We didn’t know where to get information or what would happen next.
We slept in our trailer at a friend’s house a few miles away. For four days, we could visit our home as we pleased. (We were at Evacuation Level 2, but at the time we didn’t understand what this meant.)
At the roadblock, we asked what we could do to save our house, and a kind man from the Washington Department of Natural Resources completed a quick home evaluation. We shared his recommendations with our neighbors and got to work creating defensible space around our home.
Kittitas County Conservation District served as the messenger, canvassed the neighborhood to see if anyone needed help, and invited folks to public meetings. Television was not helpful — news stations from the western part of the state were too far away from our community and only shared general information. Posts on social media were conflicting and unofficial.
Public meetings served as a forum for people to share the horrors of evacuating their horses without help, not receiving formal evacuation notices, etc. Though the talking was therapeutic, the discussions lacked focus and outcomes.
Sixty-one homes were lost in that fire, as well as countless other buildings. Infrastructure and power lines were damaged. Quick thinking by incident commanders and helicopter-delivered fire resources, fortunately, saved civilian and firefighter lives. However, lessons learned from this incident were not lost. Over the next few years, many Firewise USA™ sites were established, a fuels mitigation crew began operating, and evacuation preparedness became a common topic at area meetings and HOA gatherings.
Five years, to the day, after the Taylor Bridge Fire, lightning ignited the 2017 Jolly Mountain Fire. It slowly worked its way from a mountainous, forested region to the wildland-urban interface, threatening Cle Elum and nearby towns. The incident management team spearheaded neighborhood assessments and rated every home for risk in the expected path of the fire. Public outreach started early, with fire personnel holding neighborhood association meetings. Residents hardened their homes — understanding the reality that firefighters would likely be unable to defend them due to roadway limitations.
As the fire got closer to the small towns of Ronald, Roslyn and Cle Elum, the incident command team held public briefings, two of which I spoke at. Ready Set Go! best practices, as well as local messages from Kittitas County Conservation District and local fire districts, were incorporated into community meetings. Many residents stayed behind after the briefings with questions on home hardening and evacuation. Residents said that having specific steps to follow (Ready Set Go!) helped not only with the practical/logistical side of evacuation but also helped ease heightened emotions by having concrete tasks.
No homes or lives were lost in that fire.
Following the catastrophic fires in 2012, our community’s situational awareness is much stronger — and in many cases, homeowners, neighborhoods and towns focused on increasing their preparedness efforts during the Jolly Mountain Fire, rather than creating them from scratch like we did in 2012. I would like to think that we have come a long way, but there is so much work yet to be done.
More Evacuation Tips
Nothing is more compelling than firsthand accounts like the stories and poem above. Still, the blogs and links below provide great additional resources and tips related to evacuation planning.
Pets and Livestock
During a wildfire evacuation, it can be hectic. Even in the busiest of times, we can't forget to prepare and evacuate our pets. The Central Oregon Humane Society rounded our conversation on evacuation preparation with tips on preparing and evacuating our pets. For more information visit: www.projectwildfire.org/week6/Deschutes County Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network #makeaplanmonday #mondaymotivation
Posted by Project Wildfire on Monday, May 22, 2017
Evacuations are obviously more complicated when livestock are involved. Matthew Shapero’s recent blog, When Wildfire Hits the Ranch presented interesting reflections on how deliberate, but last-minute relocations of livestock made a difference during the Thomas Fire:
“To my knowledge, the horses that were let out into a dirt corral or round pen were unharmed during the fire. Generally, livestock also did well when left to their own devices. The Thomas Fire was extremely patchy, and animals were often able to weave their way around flames as the fire approached and passed by them. For example, some livestock owners let their horses and other stock off the ranch as the fire approached and collected them after the fire had passed.”
What Does an Evacuation Plan Look Like?
Every community is different, and so are their evacuation needs. Still, examples are helpful. Gloria Erickson details one community’s evacuation plan in her blog, Evacuation Planning — What Does It Take to Get a Community Started? The plan she discusses pertains to Eagle’s Nest Township, Minnesota. Although some components, like their evacuation via boat plans, may not pertain to your geographic setting. However, their “buddy check” model may work well in other rural areas, and the concept of integrating the community’s assets into the plan is certainly applicable at any scale. Community-based asset mapping is a process that can apply to numerous aspects of fire adaptation; read this blog to learn more about it.
Evacuation Planning in Rural, Tourism-Centric Areas
Evacuation presents a significant challenge in California’s Tahoe Basin for two particular reasons. First, the area has limited, primarily two-lane, evacuation routes. Second, many of the people in the area on any given day are tourists, unfamiliar with the area. One way that North Tahoe and Meeks Bay fire departments have addressed that challenge is through the creation of an Emergency Preparedness and Evacuation Guide that they have distributed to residents, resorts and HOAs throughout the basin. The guide lists emergency contact information, evacuation tips, and a map that can help users identify a route to a major roadway. The idea is that residents and tourists alike will have easy access to this information, as thee encourage that the guide be included in the welcome packet visitors get upon renting a room or cabin. The local fire departments have also developed and promoted shelter-in-place strategies to help mitigate additional emergencies that clogged roadways can create.
Cellphones and No Phones
by Aaron Kenneston, Washoe County emergency manager
Most Reverse 911 systems are loaded with a given area’s telephone database. So, everyone who has a registered landline in that area has his or her number is in the database. However, cellular carriers do not provide their databases to 911 dispatchers. (They are not required to do so by law, and apparently, there is a technology barrier as well). This means that it’s critical to remind your communities that cellphone users must manually register for their area’s Reverse 911 services. It’s also important to remember (and remind others) that there are a variety of reasons that phones can fail; telephone lines can burn, cellular towers can loose function, etc. Having a plan that involves utilizing local news stations and encouraging face-to-face contact (be it a buddy system, public meetings, etc.) is imperative when planning for evacuation.
Consider Conducting a Drill
Chestatee/Chattahoochee Resource Conservation and Development Council details how they pulled off a wildfire response and evacuation drill in this blog. Has your community conducted an evacuation drill? If so, tell us about it in the comment section below.
What Does the Science Say?
What makes a person decide to stay or go? Check out this research paper on the beliefs and attitudes surrounding wildfire evacuation (Sarah McCaffrey, et al.; PDF 124KB). For another spin on people’s decisions to evacuate, read Evacuation Behavior Measured during an Evacuation Order.